“I owe very little to books,” wrote William Cobbett in 1818. At the time, he was living on Long Island in political exile from his native England, and he was referring to practical books about how to farm and garden. The sentiment sounds a little strange coming from him, for he was a great maker of books of the kind he owed very little to—books like Cottage Economy, A Treatise on Cobbett’s Corn, The American Gardener, The English Gardener, The Woodlands, A Year’s Residence in the United States of America, and, in its own way, Rural Rides.
As a farmer and writer about farming, Cobbett was both an innovator and a radical nostalgist, a forward-looking plantsman with an almost Roman sense of the relationship between the farmer as cultivator and the farmer as citizen. In his often obstreperous way, he wrote endlessly about the link between farming and politics, farming and monetary policy, farming and society itself. He was an unrelenting critic of the effect of capital and its manipulation on farmers and farm laborers, and his criticism is still instructive. Agriculturally, we live now on the planet of Cobbett’s nightmares.
The United States, Cobbett wrote, “is really and truly a country of farmers. Here, Governors, Legislators, Presidents, all are farmers.” Yet what Cobbett complained of in England—that farming had become a form of investment, purely a matter of profit and return—was barely understood in America at the time. In his illuminating new study, The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History, Richard Lyman Bushman quotes a letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington in 1793, commenting on a query from Arthur Young in England. “I had never before thought of calculating what were the profits of a capital invested in Virginia agriculture,” Jefferson wrote.
An entirely different farming model prevailed in this nascent country, where land was abundant and labor scarce. The ideal was the “self-provisioning” farm, a family living upon a piece of land and working first to survive, then “to amass resources for the next generation.” As Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur put it in 1782, in one of his widely read “Letters from an American Farmer,” every American farmer was a kind of “universal fabricator like Crusoe,” struggling to develop what Bushman calls “a core household economy to satisfy most of the family’s wants.” Yet “almost no one,” he explains, “was self sufficient. Farmers had to enter into exchanges to live.” Instead of self-sufficiency, the goal was “to keep in balance with the world,” to avoid debt by producing what you needed at home. Farming wasn’t a vocation. It was “an activity, like gardening, that could be combined with other work.” And that other work—building coffins or boats, for instance, like Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut—was as…
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